This conscious fashion brand is striving to revive India’s indigenous crafts
Manjushree Saikia founded Ura Maku in 2018 as a counter to some of the worst aspects of the modern fashion industry.
Some of Manjushree Saikia’s abiding memories of childhood are of her grandparents and the local villagers gathering in their rural area of Assam in Northeast India. Textiles were, she recalls, a central part of life for them. ‘They used to cultivate a silk farm,’ she says. ‘They would hand-spin and hand-weave garments by themselves, and then give away the clothes as gifts. It was like a barter economy then.’
It’s little wonder the young Manjushree grew up with an affinity for fabrics and a passion for crafts and clothing, to the extent that when it came time for her to apply to universities, she opted for a course in Textile Design at the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in Mumbai. Not that her father was best pleased by this turn of events. ‘My dad is a doctor and he wanted me to be a doctor too,’ she says. How did she persuade him to let her study her chosen subject? ‘He works as a government doctor, so I reminded him that NIFT is a government institute and said that I could always pursue a government job after studying,’ she says, with a smile. That did the trick.
At NIFT, Manjushree was in her element. The course combined elements of fashion design with more grounded lessons in textile construction and dyeing processes. She made multiple visits to so-called ‘craft clusters’ in rural areas around the country (including in her native state of Assam) to see the various ways in which textiles were woven. ‘That’s when I was intro- duced to skilful craft-based artisans,’ she notes. ‘We were taught about how to incorporate Indian textiles into our work. The teachers always wanted us to be rooted in where we belong.’
It was around this time, in the mid-2010s, that Manjushree started to spot a disconnect between what she and her classmates were being taught and the realities of the fashion industry outside the campus gates. ‘I interned with two companies and I realised that what was being taught in the Textile Department was very different from the corporate environment,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t ethical fashion.’ The industry she was supposed to be entering was still dominated by fast fashion; rapid trend cycles driven on by social media; and cheap, poorly made clothes. Meanwhile, Manjushree knew from her connections in Assam that the artisans she respected so much were struggling.
At that time, sustainability was becoming a more commonly discussed topic but was still something of a fringe concern for the mainstream fashion industry. Moreover, with her keen eye for textiles, Manjushree noticed that almost every ostensibly sustainable brand offered the exact same loose-fitting garments. ‘In the sustainable space, I realised that tailored clothing was entirely missing,’ she says.
All of this percolated in Manjushree’s mind until, in 2018, two years after she graduated, she decided to strike out on her own and set up her own label: Ura Maku. The garments, all designed by Manjushree herself, are elegantly tailored and structured, with functionality front and centre. They’re created with an independent working woman in mind, but even the suits can be styled either into something semi-casual or more glamorous. ‘My ideal customer is a woman who comes from a small town and who has made it to the city. She dares to fly high but is still very rooted,’ says Manjushree. The brand’s name reflects these two sides of her muse – in Assamese, ‘Ura’ means ‘to fly’, while ‘Maku’ is the word for the shuttle that is used in hand- weaving; the name is at once lofty and down-to-earth.
Yet the real purpose behind the business is far more practical. ‘I started Ura Maku to support the artisans of India and especially of Assam,’ says Manjushree, explaining that she still visits Assam at least once every two months throughout the year, to see family and to visit suppliers. Her garments are all made from hand- woven fabrics crafted by these artisans, four out of five of whom are women, she estimates. This means that on an economic level each new Ura Maku collection generates more of a market for their textiles and more income for their communities.
Manjushree also wants this economic support to help revive and sustain the centuries-old skills involved in producing these textiles. ‘The weavers don’t have a success story yet,’ she says. ‘When we visit these craft clusters, they’re still in a bad situation. They don’t want the next generations to continue doing this work, because they’re still suffering.’ She hopes that Ura Maku can help reverse this trend, making it a viable profession once again.
The brand also aims to counter some of the worst aspects of the mainstream fashion industry that Manjushree first witnessed when she was a student. She describes it as a ‘conscious and mindful’ approach. Aware that the fashion industry is by most estimations the planet’s second-worst polluter (after the automo- tive sector), Manjushree opts for more sustainable alternatives, such as Corozo buttons instead of plastic ones, and vegan silks; she also dyes her garments by hand using tea rather than with harmful chemi- cals. Moreover, instead of creating collections that are only ever designed to be fashionable for one season (or even just a micro-season), she aims to produce timeless looks that can be worn for five to ten years and still feel relevant.
This ethical and sustainable approach to the women’s tailoring space has won Ura Maku a host of fans. Since 2018, the brand has grown organically, using more traditional forms of community-building, such as word of mouth, appreciation from local press and rapt reviews of runway shows. It has grown a small but dedicated following among professional women, both within India and abroad, who value the brand’s stance and the story behind it. ‘Some people, when they’re investing in something, they want it to be very extravagant,’ says Manjushree, who understands that her garments are not sold at an accessible price point. Her customer, however, is that woman who ‘wants to hear the story behind the brand,’ she notes. ‘She has that emotional connection to the garment.’
Despite the pandemic being a challenging time for all fashion brands, Ura Maku included, the future now looks bright for Manjushree and her label. ‘We want to start our first menswear collection soon,’ she says. ‘And in two to three years, we want to mark ourselves globally.’ For this international step, she says she would consider bringing on outside investment for the first time. Meanwhile, she’s also exploring how to adopt a more circular model with the brand, focusing on ‘the afterlife of our garments,’ as she puts it. Clearly, Ura Maku is continuing on its current path – a small label with a big mission and huge ambition.